One of the greatest strengths the United States has constitutes its ability to admit mistakes – to apologize and acknowledge that America has not always been right, and that it has sometimes done things terribly wrong. This capacity has always served the country well; if America has often traveled down the wrong road, it has even more often corrected its path.
Yet although people do the country a great service in perceiving in faults, sometimes the criticism goes a bit too far.
Take my college, for instance, a great institution which I love – but which exemplifies this excessive self-criticism. I have taken classes in which professors have labeled America a nation founded upon “white supremacy.” Another course, supposedly chronicling America’s history, turned out to be a litany of how the United States had oppressed blacks, women, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, the poor, homosexuals, Third World countries, the environment, and everything in between.
I have conversed with friends convinced that the United States has hurt the world far more than it has helped it. I know students so blinded by bitterness and hatred for America’s wrongdoings that it is frightening and very sad – who find racism and oppression in every TV show or every action of the Republican Party. Sometimes I feel the blindness creeping on myself.
So in the spirit of fighting this blindness, here are five things America has done right:
5. Acknowledging its wrongs. Although this post is a reaction to this gone too far, America’s ability to self-criticize still constitutes a substantial strength. Few other countries are as ready to accept error as the United States. While Germany unconditionally views its actions during WWII as a national failure, Japan still honors its war criminals. Britain may admit colonialism was wrong, but many in the country still hold pride in the days when self-determination was denied to half the world.
4. Technological innovation. The United States has developed a number of inventions and innovations which have greatly improved living standards. Whether it was through inventing the light bulb or developing the Internet (for which America was largely responsible), America’s creations are responsible for bettering the lives of billions.
3. Democracy. Although its backing for democracy has not been perfect, in the aggregate democracy is better off with America in the world. The American Revolution and its revolutionary ideals played a vital factor in spreading democracy and catalyzing the momentous French Revolution. America expanded the right to vote faster than almost every other country (Germany, for instance, only first gained democracy in the 1920s). As a well-working liberal democracy, the United States functions as an inspiration for many other countries. Even if the American government may not support their specific cause (e.g. during the Cold War), many activists for democracy still see America as an example to light their path.
2. Being on the right side of history. In the great conflicts of the 20th century, the United States has generally fought for the right side. America may have made mistakes fighting Nazism or communism, but the overall cause was the more just alternative. It always despised the monarchy which took Europe so long to overthrow. And while America may have dabbled in colonialism, its hostility to European imperialism sealed the fate of their dying empires.
1. Treatment of minorities. This may sound strange, given that so many of America’s wrongs have involved its minorities. Yet while discrimination and subtle racism still burden the lives of millions of minority citizens, at the same time those minorities have far more opportunity than they would have in any other country. America is more generous to immigrants than almost every country in the world – one of its greatest advantages. France and Germany still do not consider their immigrants citizens even after three generations. In China Sun Yat-sen still called the Manchus foreigners three hundred years after they first entered China. In the United States, by contrast, it only takes one generation to become American. For larger groups the process is longer – Jews, Irish, Italians, and Slavs were considered foreign for many years. Today the same applies to Hispanics. Yet eventually Hispanics will be considered as white as the Irish are today.
One group, of course, will never be classified as white – African Americans (and probably Asian-Americans), who have the greatest claim to grievance against America. Yet while the United States enslaved and segregated its black citizens, it also elected a black president in 2008. Blacks have power of sorts today, and the United States has made sure that their story is a central part of its history. Ask Americans to name the greatest American of the past century, and many will probably say MLK. Ask Americans to name the best president, and they will say the one who freed the slaves. This may sound like small consolation to the millions of blacks struggling under the yoke of poverty today. Perhaps a better one is this: in no other country I can name has a dominant majority elected a member of its impoverished minority as president.